Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Justin Kim, men’s water polo beat reporter of The Daily Californian, and Kirk Everist, head coach of Cal men’s water polo. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Justin Kim: How was adjusting to the COVID-19 season? What were some things that changed or stayed the same?
Kirk Everist: The testing wore on the players, but the thing that changed the most was how we had to flow our workouts, as the players did not have access to the facilities for nine months. The players did a good job on their own, but there is only so much you can replicate in order to be in top physical condition because we play a water sport. When we were coming back, we really had to monitor how much we pushed them in practice, how long they would be and how physical they would be in order to be prepared to play games because if we went too hard, you’d end up with guys who weren’t able to play the number of games we were playing in a weekend. That was probably the biggest change as far as the training went. You had to keep it fairly simple early on just to keep everybody ready to play. I think that the competitiveness of the season was the same. All of the teams were very excited to get the opportunity to play games, compete, and the competitiveness of the rivalries that we were going up against every weekend with USC and UCLA and Stanford, that didn’t change at all.
JK: Were there any unexpected benefits of the COVID-19 season?
KE: “I think there was a competitiveness between the teams and coaching staff. I think how we all worked together was the best thing that came out of it. We realized we really had to work hard to figure out a way to make this season work. For a lack of a better word, coaches had to be stubborn to really push and fight to keep our kids ready and come up with a schedule that we felt the universities would allow so that we could have a number of competitive games, so we worked really hard together to make it work and I thought that was the best thing. I think there was a lot of gratitude. For 90 minutes both teams would try to kill each other and then we all really realized that we were grateful for the other team because we needed them to do all the things to be ready to play and they needed us.
JK: Despite some of the regulations and season setbacks, the team was still able to retain the number one spot in the nation for three consecutive weeks. What did you emphasize to the team during this stretch, and what do you believe the team executed on best during that stretch?
KE: Like I said, they did a really good job of keeping themselves together as a unit while we were not able to train and not able to be on campus. Our focus was to quickly implement how we were going to play and some of that had to be done at the last second because you weren’t sure how fit people were going to be and how many minutes certain guys could play. The focus was on staying together, playing hard, playing with passion and energy and competing. The quality went up and down, and it wasn’t always pretty for any of the teams. We needed to compete and battle and fight and I think that nine or ten months of not having access to things built up a toughness in this group that showed during the year.
JK: What was the standout game of the season for you?
KE: We had some great games. It would have been fun to play UCLA one more time. I think three out of the four games we played them went to overtime and both teams made big comebacks or tied games right at the last second to send it to overtime. I really enjoyed those games with them. I think it was two really evenly matched teams that played similar styles, so it was hard to get away from each other. I enjoyed those games this season, as two quality, competitive and evenly matched teams went at each other pretty hard.
JK: Nikolaos Papanikolaou won the Best student-athlete competing in NCAA men’s sports honors for the Daily Cal this year along with many other accolades this season. How has he progressed since his freshman year and what stands out to you about Nikolaos, whether it be his in-game, in-practice, or locker room impact?
KE: He’s an extremely versatile player, as we can use him in a lot of different ways. He’s a traditional center, but he can guard on the perimeter. He’s athletic, he can shoot from the perimeter, he can swim really well, not just well for a guy that weighs 230 pounds. He can swim well for anybody. He has great end-to-end speed. He can do so many things that make him hard to deal with. He also has a great feel for the game and great vision. He’s really physically strong as well. Papanikolaou is a package that is really hard to handle on the offensive end, and he is very athletic defensively as well. We can put him on one of the other team’s better players at the end of the game if we want to shut somebody down. He is just a very well-rounded player and he’s efficient. He’s excellent at finishing in short tiny spaces with a lot of physicality on him and he can still get really high percentage shots off. From the center position, a lot of players tend to draw ejections and work for ejections all the time. As a coaching philosophy, we really try to teach our centers to score and not just work for the ejection.
JK: Here’s a fun question for you: who were the notable personalities on the team?
KE: We’ve got a lot of personalities on this team: Jake Stone and Garrett Dunn bring a lot of energy and our goalie Adrian Weinberg has a great personality. I like kids that have personality and aren’t afraid to talk. As one of my players a few years ago told me, ‘Weird attracts weird, Coach.’ We have athletes, but their strength is their unit and how tight they are and this group has the potential, along with its ability to hone a system and try to play the right way, to be really great and do some great things as a group. I think we just scratched the surface this year. I’m excited to see this group over the next three years, as most of them are sophomores or freshmen.
JK: What should Cal fans look forward to next season? Are there any incoming players to watch out for or returning players on the brink of a breakout season?
KE: Everybody will get a little bit better, as there will be some players who come back from other programs that will make them tougher to deal with. For example, USC was missing a couple of guys that are national team kind of players for the U.S., so they took the semester off just to train in hopes of making the Olympics. I like our incoming freshman class, but they will have to come in and beat out some players as we are not really losing anybody. Regardless, we are going to need to improve. I think Jack Deely had a great year offensively, but he’s going to have to improve his game, and other players have to step up on the offensive end, because when we struggled this year, it was when other teams would not let us get the ball into Papanikolaou. This caused our perimeter shooting to go cold, so we really have to work on how we attack zones, improve our energy in the zone, play bigger in the water, shoot from higher elevations and use our legs more. We got some work to do there. I think George Avakian, our backup center this year, had some great minutes at times. It’s a hard position because when you got a guy like Papanikolaou ahead of him, it’s hard to take him out, but sometimes I think Papanikolaou got tired because I would extend him and part of that was because his backup was a freshman. My trust in Avakian was growing, but it was a short season. We did not play anybody where we could have a comfort level in the game ever, which was fun, but the games were always tight. To get to the point where I could extend a freshman like George (Avakian) for a while didn’t happen as much, but he showed that he could really compete at this level and I think by next year he will be somebody that will allow me to do some different things with Papanikolaou.
JK: What are your top two expectations or hopes for next season?
KE: You know, we always want to win or compete for a national championship. It’s hard; you need some luck to win it. We have to be really consistent and solve some of the problems we had this year. Some goals would be to improve our perimeter offensive game to match our inside game. If we can do that, I feel like we will be really tough to beat. That will allow us to get to NCAAs again, and if we can get there, we have the ability to win three games in a row, and that’s all you want by the end of the year. In order to do that in our world, you have to be really consistent, and I thought for the most part this year, we didn’t have a bad game. We might have had a bad quarter, but we did not have bad games. We have to build off of that consistency and work on a couple of things that gave us bad quarters, and that will put us in a good position to be where we want to be in the end.